Nativity of Jesus

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"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622
Medieval miniature of the Nativity by the Master of Vyšší Brod, c 1350

The nativity of Jesus or birth of Jesus is described in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. The two accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the time of Herod the Great to a betrothed virgin whose name was Mary. There are, however, major differences. Matthew has no census, annunciation to the shepherds or presentation in the Temple, implies that Jesus's parents' home is Bethlehem, and has him born in a house there, and has an unnamed angel appear to Joseph to announce the birth. In Luke there are no Magi, no flight into Egypt, or Massacre of the Innocents, Joseph is a resident of Nazareth, the birth appears to take place in an inn instead of the family home, and the angel (named as Gabriel) announces the coming birth to Mary.[1] While it is possible that Matthew's account might be based on Luke or Luke's on Matthew, the majority of scholars conclude that the two are independent of each other.[1]

In Christian theology the nativity marks the incarnation of Jesus as the second Adam, in fulfillment of the divine will of God, undoing the damage caused by the fall of the first man, Adam. The artistic depiction of the nativity has been a major subject for Christian artists since the 4th century. Since the 13th century, the nativity scene has emphasized the humility of Jesus and promoted a more tender image of him, as a major turning point from the early "Lord and Master" image, affecting the basic approaches of Christian pastoral ministry.[2][3][4]

The nativity plays a major role in the Christian liturgical year. Christian congregations of the Western tradition (including the Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, and many Protestants) begin observing the season of Advent four Sundays before Christmas, the traditional feast-day of his birth, on 24 December each year; Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church practice the Nativity Fast during the forty days leading up to Christmas, which for them falls on January 7th. This is due to Orthodox churches continuing to follow the Julian calendar, rather than the modern day Gregorian calendar.[5]

New Testament narratives[edit]

Nativity of Jesus, by Botticelli

Gospel of Matthew[edit]

A page from an 11th-century Gospel of Matthew showing Matthew 1:21

"This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about:" Mary, the mother of Jesus, was betrothed to Joseph, but was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Joseph intended to divorce her quietly, but an angel told him in a dream that he should take Mary as his wife and name the child Jesus, because he would save his people from their sins. Joseph awoke and did all that the angel commanded.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the time of Herod the Great. Magi from the east came to Herod and asked him where they would find the King of the Jews, because they had seen his star. Advised by the chief priests and teachers, Herod sent the Magi to Bethlehem, where they worshiped the child and gave him gifts. When they had departed an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, for Herod intended to kill him. The Holy Family remained in Egypt until Herod died, when Joseph took them to Nazareth in Galilee for fear of Herod's son who now ruled in Jerusalem. "So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene."

Gospel of Luke[edit]

Angel Gabriel's Annunciation to Mary, by Murillo, c. 1655

In the days when Herod was king of Judea, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth in Galilee to announce to a virgin named Mary, who was betrothed to a man named Joseph, that a child would be born to her and she was to name him Jesus, for he would be the son of God and rule over Israel forever. When the time of the birth drew near the Roman Emperor commanded a census of all the world, and Joseph took Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David, as he was of the House of David. So it came to pass that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and as there was no room in the town the infant was laid in a manger while angels announced his birth and shepherds worshiped him as Messiah and Lord.

In accordance with the Jewish law his parents presented the infant Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem, where the righteous Simeon and Anna the Prophetess gave thanks to God who had sent his salvation. Joseph and Mary then returned to Nazareth. There "the child grew and became strong, and was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was on him." Each year his parents went to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and when Jesus was twelve years old they found him in the Temple listening to the teachers and asking questions so that all who heard him were amazed. His mother rebuked him for causing them anxiety, because they had not known where he was, but he answered that he was in his Father's house. "Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them, but his mother treasured all these things in her heart, and Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man."

Historical analysis[edit]

Many scholars do not see the Luke and Matthew nativity stories as historically factual.[6][7][8] Many view the discussion of historicity as secondary, given that gospels were primarily written as theological documents rather than chronological timelines.[9][10][11][12]

For instance, Matthew pays far more attention to the name of the child and its theological implications than the actual birth event itself.[13] According to Karl Rahner the evangelists show little interest in synchronizing the episodes of the birth or subsequent life of Jesus with the secular history of the age.[14] As a result, modern scholars do not use much of the birth narratives for historical information.[15][16] Nevertheless, they are considered to contain some useful biographical information: Jesus being born near the end of Herod's reign and his father's being named Joseph are considered historically plausible.[16][17]

Traditional views[edit]

Beginning of a Byzantine copy of the Gospel of Luke, 1020.

Some scholars maintain the traditional view that the two accounts are historically accurate and do not contradict each other, pointing to the similarities between the two accounts,[18] such as the birthplace of Bethlehem and the virgin birth. George Kilpatrick and, separately, Michael Patella state that a comparison of the nativity accounts of Luke and Matthew show common elements in terms of the virgin birth, the birth at Bethlehem, and the upbringing at Nazareth, and that although there are differences in the accounts of the nativity in Luke and Matthew, a general narrative may be constructed by combining the two.[19][20]

Neither Luke nor Matthew claims their birth narratives are based on direct testimony.[21] James Hastings and, separately, Thomas Neufeld have expressed the view that the circumstances of Jesus' birth were deliberately kept restricted to a small group of early Christians, and were kept as a secret for many years after his death, thus explaining the variations in the accounts in Luke and Matthew.[22][23]

Daniel J. Harrington expresses the view that due to the scarcity of ancient records, a number of issues regarding the historicity of some nativity episodes can never be fully determined, and that the more important task is deciding what the nativity narratives meant to the early Christian communities.[24]


A number of biblical scholars, such as Bernard Orchard, have attempted to show how the text from both narratives can be interwoven as a gospel harmony to create one account that begins with a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where Jesus is born, followed by the flight to Egypt, and ending with a return to Nazareth.[25][26][27][28][29]

Critical analysis[edit]

Many modern scholars consider the birth narratives unhistorical because they are laced with theology and present two different accounts.[16][30] For instance, they point to Matthew's account of the appearance of an angel to Joseph in a dream; the wise men from the East; the massacre of the innocents; and the flight to Egypt, which do not appear in Luke, which instead describes the appearance of an angel to Mary; the Roman census; the birth in a manger; and the choir of angels.[31]

Most modern scholars accept the Marcan priority hypothesis, that the Luke and Matthew accounts are based on the Gospel of Mark, but that the birth narratives come from the evangelists' independent sources, known as M source for Matthew and L source for Luke, which were added later.[32]

Scholars consider the accounts in Luke and Matthew as explaining the birth in Bethlehem in different ways, giving separate genealogies of Jesus and probably not historical.[6][7][15][16][33] While Géza Vermes and E. P. Sanders dismiss the accounts as pious fiction, Raymond E. Brown sees them as having been constructed from historical traditions which predate the Gospels.[34][35][36] According to Brown, there is no uniform agreement among scholars on the historicity of the accounts, e.g., most of those scholars who reject the historicity of the birth at Bethlehem argue for a birth at Nazareth, a few suggest Capernaum, and other have hypothesized locations as far away as Chorazin.[37] Bruce Chilton and archaeologist Aviram Oshri have proposed a birth at Bethlehem of Galilee, a site located seven miles from Nazareth at which remains dating to the time of Herod the Great have been excavated.[38][39] Armand P. Tarrech states that Chilton's hypothesis has no support in either the Jewish or Christian sources, although Chilton seems to take seriously the statement in Luke 2:4 that Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.[40]

Massacre of the Innocents[edit]

According to Paul L Maier, most modern biographies of Herod do not believe the massacre took place.[41] Steve Mason argues that if the massacre had taken place as described in Matthew, it would have been strange for Josephus not to mention it, and that the massacre may hence be non-historical.[42] E. P. Sanders characterizes Josephus' writing as dwelling on Herod's cruelty, thus suggesting that Josephus would probably have included the event if it had occurred.[7] Sanders states that faced with little historical information, Matthew apparently based the story in which an infant Moses is endangered by the Pharaoh in order to kill infant Hebrews and that such use of scripture for telling the story of Jesus' birth was considered legitimate by contemporary standards.[7]

There are writers who defend the historicity of the massacre. R. T. France states that the massacre was a low magnitude event of a nature that would have not demanded the attention of Josephus but was in line with Herod's character.[43] Paul L. Maier argues that Bethlehem was small, and the massacre would have been too small for Josephus to have heard of it given that it allegedly took place over 40 years before his own birth.[44] Paul Barnett and, separately, Craig L. Blomberg also state that Bethlehem was a very small village with few inhabitants, and the massacre would have involved too few children to have been recorded by historians in general.[45][46]

Date of birth[edit]

The date of birth of Jesus of Nazareth is not stated in the gospels or in any secular text, but most scholars assume a date of birth between 6 BC and 4 BC.[47] The historical evidence is too sketchy to allow a definitive dating,[48] but the date is estimated through two different approaches - one by analyzing references to known historical events mentioned in the Nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and the second by working backwards from the estimation of the start of the ministry of Jesus.[49][50]

Place of birth[edit]

Altar in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.[51][52] Although Matthew does not explicitly state Joseph's place of origin or where he lived prior to the birth of Jesus,[53][54] the account implies that the family lived in Bethlehem, and explains that they later settled in Nazareth.[55] However, Luke 1:26–27 clearly states that Mary lived in Nazareth before the birth of Jesus, at the time of the Annunciation.[54]

The Gospel of Luke states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and placed him in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn", but does not say exactly where Jesus was born.[56] The Greek word kataluma may be translated as either “inn” or “guestroom”, and some scholars have speculated that Joseph and Mary may have sought to stay with relatives, rather than at an inn, only to find the house full, whereupon they resorted to the shelter of a room with a manger.

In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr stated that Jesus had been born in a cave outside the town, while the Protoevangelium of James described a legendary birth in a cave nearby.[57][58] The Church of the Nativity inside the town, built by St. Helena, contains the cave-manger site traditionally venerated as the birthplace of Jesus, which may have originally been a site of the cult of the god Tammuz.[59] In Contra Celsum 1.51, Origen, who from around 215 travelled throughout Palestine, wrote of the "manger of Jesus".[60]

Sanders considers Luke's census, for which everyone returned to their ancestral home, not historically credible, as this was contrary to Roman practice; they would not have uprooted everyone from their homes and farms in the Empire by forcing them to return to their ancestral cities. Moreover, people were not able to trace their own lineages back 42 generations.[7]

The Quranic birth of Jesus, like the Gospels, places the virgin birth of Jesus in Bethlehem,[61][62][63] at a time when dates were ripe on the trees. (The Quran code of Rashad Khalifa sees numerological significance in the birth of Muhammad (ca 570) occurring 570 years after the traditional birthdate of Jesus.[64])

Themes and analogies[edit]

Thematic analysis[edit]

Helmut Koester writes that while Matthew's narrative was formed in a Jewish environment, Luke's was modeled to appeal to the Greco-Roman world.[65] In particular, according to Koester, while shepherds were regarded negatively by Jews in Jesus' time, they were seen in Greco-Roman culture as "symbols of a golden age when gods and humans lived in peace and nature was at harmony".[65] C. T. Ruddick, Jr. writes that Luke's birth narratives of Jesus and John were modeled on passages from Genesis: 27–43.[66] Regardless, Luke's nativity depicts Jesus as a savior for all people. His genealogy goes back to Adam, demonstrating his common humanity, as do the lowly circumstances of his birth. Luke, writing for a gentile audience, portrays the infant Jesus as a savior for gentiles as well as Jews.[67] Matthew uses quotations from Jewish scripture, scenes reminiscent of Moses' life, and a numerical pattern in his genealogy to identify Jesus as a son of David, of God, and of Abraham. Luke's prelude is much longer, emphasizing the age of the Holy Spirit and the arrival of a savior for all people, Jew and Gentile.[68]

Mainstream scholars interpret Matthew's nativity as depicting Jesus as a new Moses with a genealogy going back to Abraham,[69][70] while Ulrich Luz views Matthew's depiction of Jesus at once as the new Moses and the inverse of Moses Moss, and not simply a retelling of the Moses story.[71] Luz also points out that in the massacre narrative, once again, a fulfilment quotation is given – Rachel, the ancestral mother of Israel, weeping for her dead children (2:18)[72]

Scholars who see Matthew as casting Jesus in the role of being a second Moses argue that, like Moses, the infant Jesus is saved from a murderous tyrant; and he flees the country of his birth until his persecutor is dead and it is safe to return as the savior of his people.[73] In this view, the account in Matthew is based on an earlier narrative patterned on traditions about the birth of Moses. Moses' birth is announced to Pharaoh by Magi; the child is threatened and rescued; the male Israelite children are similarly put to death by an evil king.[69][73]

According to Ulrich Luz, the beginning of the narrative of Matthew is similar to earlier biblical stories, e.g., the Annunciation of Jesus' birth (1:18–25) is reminiscent of the biblical accounts of the births of Ishmael, Isaac and Samson (Genesis 16:11, 17;19; Judges 13:3,5), and it recalls the Haggadic traditions of the birth of Moses. Yet in Luz's view the contours appear, in part, strangely overlapped and inverted: "Egypt, formerly the land of suppression becomes a place of refuge and it is the King of Israel who now takes on the role of Pharaoh...[yet] Matthew is not simply retelling the Moses story..Instead, the story of Jesus really is a new story: Jesus is at once the new Moses and the inverse of Moses."[71]

Old Testament parallels[edit]

A page from the Codex Sinaiticus.

Scholars have debated whether Matthew 1:22 and Matthew 2:23 refer to specific Old Testament passages. The statement in Matthew 1:22: "All this happened to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet" does not mention the prophet Isaiah in 4th-century documents such as the Codex Sinaiticus, but some 5–6th-century manuscripts of Matthew, such as Codex Bezae, read "Isaiah the prophet".[74] The statement in Matthew 1:23 "Behold the virgin shall be with child" uses the Greek term "parthenos" as "virgin" as in the Septuagint Isaiah, while the much older Masoretic Isaiah uses the Hebrew "almah", which may mean "maiden," "young woman," or "virgin."[75] Raymond Brown states that the 3rd century BCE translators of the Septuagint may have understood the Hebrew word "almah" to mean virgin in this context.[75]

The statement in Matthew 2:23 "he will be called a Nazorean" does not mention a specific passage in the Old Testament, and there are multiple scholarly interpretations as to what it may refer to.[76] B. Aland and other scholars consider the Greek Ναζωραιος used for Nazorean of uncertain etymology and meaning,[77] but M. Menken states that it is a demonym that refers to an "inhabitant of Nazareth".[78] Menken also states that it may be referring to Judges 13:5, 7.[79] Gary Smith states that Nazirite may mean one consecrated to God, i.e. an ascetic; or may refer to Isaiah 11:1.[80] The Oxford Bible Commentary states that it may be word-play on the use of "nazirite," "Holy One of God," in Isaiah 4:3, meant to identify Jesus with the Nazoreans, a Jewish sect who differed from the Pharisees only in regarding Jesus as the Messiah.[73][81] The Swiss theologian Ulrich Luz, who locates the Matthean community in Syria, has noted that Syrian Christians also called themselves Nazarenes.[82]

Christian theology[edit]

The theological significance of the Nativity of Jesus has been a key element in Christian teachings, from the early Church Fathers to 20th century theologians.[83][84][85] The theological issues were addressed as early as Apostle Paul, but continued to be debated and eventually lead to both Christological and Mariological differences among Christians that resulted in early schisms within the Church by the 5th century.

Birth of the new man[edit]

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.

— Colossians 1:15–16 regards the birth of Jesus as the model for all creation.[86][87][88][89]

Paul the Apostle viewed the birth of Jesus as an event of cosmic significance which brought forth a "new man" who undid the damage caused by the fall of the first man, Adam. Just as the Johannine view of Jesus as the incarnate Logos proclaims the universal relevance of his birth, the Pauline perspective emphasizes the birth of a new man and a new world in the birth of Jesus.[90] Paul's eschatological view of Jesus counter-positions him as a new man of morality and obedience, in contrast to Adam. Unlike Adam, the new man born in Jesus obeys God and ushers in a world of morality and salvation.[90]

In the Pauline view, Adam is positioned as the first man and Jesus as the second: Adam, having corrupted himself by his disobedience, also infected humanity and left it with a curse as inheritance. The birth of Jesus, on the other hand, counterbalanced the fall of Adam, bringing forth redemption and repairing the damage done by Adam.[91]

In patristic theology, Paul's contrasting of Jesus as the new man versus Adam provided a framework for discussing the uniqueness of the birth of Jesus and the ensuing events of his life. The Nativity of Jesus thus began to serve as the starting point for "cosmic Christology" in which the birth, life and Resurrection of Jesus have universal implications.[90][92][93] The concept of Jesus as the "new man" repeats in the cycle of birth and rebirth of Jesus from his Nativity to his Resurrection: following his birth, through his morality and obedience to the Father, Jesus began a new harmony in the relationship between God the Father and man. The Nativity and Resurrection of Jesus thus created the author and exemplar of a new humanity.[94]

In the 2nd century Church Father Irenaeus writes:

"When He became incarnate and was made man, He commenced afresh the long line of human beings, and furnished us, in a brief, comprehensive manner, with salvation; so that what we had lost in Adam – namely to be according to the image and likeness of God- that we might recover in Christ Jesus."[84][85]

Irenaeus was also one of the early theologians to use the analogy of "second Adam and second Eve". He suggested the Virgin Mary as the "second eve" and wrote that the Virgin Mary had "untied the knot of sin bound up by the virgin Eve" and that just as Eve had tempted Adam to disobey God, Mary had set a path of obedience for the second Adam (i.e. Jesus) from the Annunciation to Calvary so that Jesus could bring about salvation, undoing the damage of Adam.[95]

In the 4th century, this uniqueness of the circumstances related to the Nativity of Jesus, and their interplay with the mystery of the incarnation became a central element in both the theology and hymnody of Saint Ephrem the Syrian. For him, the uniqueness of the Nativity of Jesus was supplemented with the sign of the Majesty of the Creator through the ability of a powerful God to enter the world as a small newborn.[96]

In the Middle Ages the birth of Jesus as the second Adam came to be seen in the context of Saint Augustine's Felix culpa (i.e. happy fall) and was intertwined with the popular teachings on the fall from grace of Adam and Eve.[97] Augustine was fond of a statement on Nativity by Saint Gregory of Nyssa and he quoted in five times: "Venerate the Nativity, through which you are freed from the bonds of an earthly nativity".[98] And he liked to quote: "Just as in Adam all of us died, so too in Christ all of us will be brought to life".[98][99]

The theology persisted into the Protestant Reformation, and second Adam was one of the six modes of atonement discussed by John Calvin.[100] In the 20th century, leading theologian Karl Barth continued the same line of reasoning and viewed the Nativity of Jesus as the birth of a new man who succeeded Adam. In Barth's theology, in contrast to Adam, Jesus acted as an obedient Son in the fulfilment of the divine will and was therefore free from sin and could hence reveal the righteousness of God the Father and bring about salvation.[83]


In Summa Theologiæ, (1471 copy shown here) Thomas Aquinas addressed many of the open Christological questions regarding the Nativity of Jesus.

The nativity of Jesus impacted the Christological issues about the Person of Christ from the earliest days of Christianity. Luke's Christology centers on the dialectics of the dual natures of the earthly and heavenly manifestations of existence of the Christ, while Matthew's Christology focuses on the mission of Jesus and his role as the savior.[101][102]

The belief in the divinity of Jesus leads to the question: "was Jesus a man to be born of a woman or was he God born of a woman?" A wide range of hypotheses and beliefs regarding the nature of the nativity of Jesus were presented in the first four centuries of Christianity. Some of the debates involved the title Theotokos (God bearer) for the Virgin Mary and began to illustrate the impact of Mariology on Christology. Some of these viewpoints were eventually declared as heresies, others led to schisms and the formation of new branches of the Church.[103][104][105][106]

The salvific emphasis of Matthew 1:21 later impacted the theological issues and the devotions to Holy Name of Jesus.[107][108][109] Matthew 1:23 provides the only key to the Emmanuel Christology in the New Testament. Beginning with 1:23, Matthew shows a clear interest in identifying Jesus as "God with us" and in later developing the Emmanuel characterization of Jesus at key points throughout the rest of his Gospel.[110] The name Emmanuel does not appear elsewhere in the New Testament, but Matthew builds on it in Matthew 28:20 ("I am with you always, even unto the end of the world") to indicates that Jesus will be with the faithful to the end of the age.[110][111] According to Ulrich Luz, the Emmanuel motif brackets the entire Gospel of Matthew between 1:23 and 28:20, appearing explicitly and implicitly in several other passages.[112]

A number of ecumenical councils were convened in the 4th and 5th centuries to deal with these issues. The Council of Ehesus debated hypostasis (co-existing natures) versus Monophysitism (only one nature) versus Miaphysitism (two natures united as one) versus Nestorianism (disunion of two natures).[113][114] The 451 Council of Chalcedon was highly influential and marked a key turning point in the Christological debates that broke apart the church of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 5th century. In Chalcedon the hypostatic union was decreed, namely that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human, making this part of the creed of Orthodox Christianity.[115][116][117][118]

In the 5th century, leading Church Father Pope Leo I used the nativity as a key element of his theology. Leo gave 10 sermons on the nativity and 7 have survived, the one on December 25, 451 demonstrates his concern to increase the importance of the feast of nativity and along with it emphasize the two natures of Christ in defense of the Christological doctrine of hypostatic union.[119] Leo often used his nativity sermons as an occasion to attack opposing viewpoints, without naming the opposition. Thus Leo used the occasion of the Nativity feast to establish boundaries for what could be considered a heresy. regarding the birth and nature of Christ.[103]

In the 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas addressed the Christologocal attribution of the nativity: Should it be attributed to the person (the Word) or only to the assumed human nature of that person. Aquinas treated nativity in 8 separate articles in Summa Theologica each posing a separate question, e.g.: "Does Nativity regard the nature rather than the Person?", "Should a temporal Nativity be attributed to Christ?" "Should the Blessed Virgin be called Christ's Mother?", "Should the Blessed Virgin be called the Mother of God?", "Are there two filiations in Christ?", etc.[120] To deal with this issue, Aquinas distinguishes between the person born and the nature in which the birth takes place.[121] Aquinas thus resolved the question by arguing that in the hypostatic union Christ has two natures, one received from the Father from eternity, the other from his mother in time. This approach also resolved the Mariological problem of Mary receiving the title of Theotokos for under this scenario she is the "Mother of God".[121]

During the Reformation, John Calvin argued that Jesus was not sanctified to be "God manifested as Incarnate" (Deus manifestatus in carne) only due to his Virgin Birth, but through the action of the Holy Spirit at the instant of his birth. Thus Calvin argued that Jesus was exempt from original sin because he was sanctified at the moment of birth so that his generation was without blemish; as generation has been blemishless before the fall of Adam.[122]

Impact on Christianity[edit]

Feasts and liturgical elements[edit]

In the 1st and 2nd centuries, the Lord's Day (Sunday) was the earliest Christian celebration and included a number of theological themes. In the 2nd century, the Resurrection of Jesus became a separate feast as Easter and in the same century Epiphany began to be celebrated in the Churches of the East on January 6.[123] The celebration of the feast of the Magi on January 6 may relate to a pre-Christian celebration for the blessing of the Nile in Egypt on January 5, but this is not historically certain.[124] The festival of the Nativity which later turned into Christmas was a 4th-century feast in the Western Church notably in Rome and North Africa, although it is uncertain exactly where and when it was first celebrated.[125]

The earliest source stating December 25 as the date of birth of Jesus was Hippolytus of Rome (170–236), written very early in the 3rd century, based on the assumption that the conception of Jesus took place at the Spring equinox which he placed on March 25, and then added nine months.[126] There is historical evidence that by the middle of the 4th century the Christian churches of the East celebrated the birth and Baptism of Jesus on the same day, on January 6 while those in the West celebrated a Nativity feast on December 25 (perhaps influenced by the Winter solstice); and that by the last quarter of the 4th century, the calendars of both churches included both feasts.[127] The earliest suggestions of a fast of Baptism of Jesus on January 6 during the 2nd century comes from Clement of Alexandria, but there is no further mention of such a feast until 361 when Emperor Julian attended a feast on January 6 in the year 361.[127]

Christmas Eve Nativity at Resurrection Lutheran Church, Fredericksburg, Virginia

The Chronography of 354 illuminated manuscript compiled in Rome includes an early reference to the celebration of a Nativity feast. In a sermon delivered in Antioch on December 25, c. 386, Saint John Chrysostom provides specific information about the feast there, stating that the feast had existed for about 10 years.[127] By around 385 the feast for the birth of Jesus was distinct from that of the Baptism and was held on December 25 in Constantinople, Nyssa and Amaseia. In a sermon in 386, Gregory of Nyssa specifically related the feast of Nativity with that of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen, celebrated a day later. By 390 the feast was also held in Iconium on that day.[127]

Pope Leo I established a feast of the "Mystery of Incarnation" in the 5th century, in effect as the first formal feast for the Nativity of Jesus. Pope Sixtus III then instituted the practice of Midnight Mass just before that feast.[128] In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian declared Christmas to be a legal holiday.[129]

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the theological importance of the Nativity of Jesus, was coupled with an emphasis on the loving nature of Child Jesus in sermons by figures such as Jean Gerson. In his sermons Gerson emphasized the loving nature of Jesus at his Nativity, as well as his cosmic plan for the salvation of mankind.[130]

By the early part of the 20th century, Christmas had become a "cultural signature" of Christianity and indeed of the Western culture even in countries such as the United States which are officially non-religious. By the beginning of the 21st century these countries began to pay more attention to the sensitivities of non-Christians during the festivities at the end of the calendar year.[131]

Transforming the image of Jesus[edit]

Paper on wood Nativity scene from 1750, Milan, presenting a tender image of Jesus.

Early Christians viewed Jesus as "the Lord" and the word Kyrios appears over 700 times in the New Testament, referring to him.[132] The use of the word Kyrios in the Septuagint Bible also assigned to Jesus the Old Testament attributes of an omnipotent God.[132] The use of the term Kyrios, and hence the Lordship of Jesus, pre-dated the Pauline epistles, but Saint Paul expanded and elaborated on that topic.[132]

Pauline writings established among early Christians the Kyrios image, and attributes of Jesus as not only referring to his eschatological victory, but to him as the "divine image" (Greek εἰκών eikōn) in whose face the glory of God shines forth. This image persisted among Christians as the predominant perception of Jesus for a number of centuries.[133] More than any other title, Kyrios defined the relationship between Jesus and those who believed in him as Christ: Jesus was their Lord and Master who was to be served with all their hearts and who would one day judge their actions throughout their lives.[134]

The lordship attributes associated with the Kyrios image of Jesus also implied his power over all creation.[135][136] Paul then looked back and reasoned that the final lordship of Jesus was prepared from the very beginning, starting with pre-existence and the Nativity, based on his obedience as the image of God.[137] Over time, based on the influence of Anselm of Canterbury, Bernard of Clairvaux and others, the Kyrios image of Jesus began to be supplemented with a more "tender image of Jesus", and the Franciscan approach to popular piety was instrumental in establishing this image.[136]

The 13th century witnessed a major turning point in the development of a new "tender image of Jesus" within Christianity, as the Franciscans began to emphasize the humility of Jesus both at his birth and his death. The construction of the Nativity scene by Saint Francis of Assisi was instrumental in portraying a softer image of Jesus that contrasted with the powerful and radiant image at the Transfiguration, and emphasized how God had taken a humble path to his own birth.[2] As the Black Death raged in Medieval Europe, two mendicant orders of Franciscans and Dominicans helped the faithful cope with tragedies. One element of the Franciscan approach was the emphasis on the humility of Jesus and the poverty of his birth: the image of God was the image of Jesus, not a severe and punishing God, but himself humble at birth and sacrificed at death.[3] The concept that the omnipotent Creator would set aside all power in order to conquer the hearts of men by love and that he would have been helplessly placed in a manger was as marvelous and as touching to the believers as the sacrifice of dying on the cross in Calvary.[4]

Thus by the 13th century the tender joys of the Nativity of Jesus were added to the agony of his Crucifixion and a whole new range of approved religious emotions were ushered in, with wide ranging cultural impacts for centuries thereafter.[4] The Franciscans approached both ends of this spectrum of emotions. On one hand the introduction of the Nativity scene encouraged the tender image of Jesus, while on the other hand Francis of Assisi himself had a deep attachment to the sufferings of Jesus on the Cross and was said to have received the Stigmata as an expression of that love. The dual nature of Franciscan piety based both on joy of Nativity and the sacrifice at Calvary had a deep appeal among city dwellers and as the Franciscan Friars travelled, these emotions spread across the world, transforming the Kyrios image of Jesus to a more tender, loving, and compassionate image.[4] These traditions did not remain limited to Europe and soon spread to the other parts of the world such as Latin America, the Philippines and the United States.[138][139]

According to Archbishop Rowan Williams this transformation, accompanied by the proliferation of the tender image of Jesus in Madonna and Child paintings made an important impact within the Christian Ministry by allowing Christians to feel the living presence of Jesus as a loving figure "who is always there to harbor and nurture those who turn to him for help.[140][141]

Hymns, art and music[edit]

Canticles appearing in Luke[edit]

Luke's Nativity text has given rise to four well known canticles: the Benedictus and the Magnificat in the first chapter, and the Gloria in Excelsis and the Nunc dimittis in the second chapter.[142] These "Gospel canticles" are now an integral part of the Christian liturgical tradition.[143] The parallel structure in Luke regarding the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, extends to the three canticles Benedictus (Song of Zechariah), the Nunc dimittis and the Magnificat.[144]

The Magnificat, in Luke 1:46–55, is spoken by Mary and is one of the 8 most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn.[145] The Benedictus, in Luke 1:68–79, is spoken by Zechariah, while the Nunc dimittis, in Luke 2:29–32 is spoken by Simeon.[146] The traditional Gloria in Excelsis is longer than the opening line presented in Luke 2:14, and is often called the "Song of the Angels" given that it was uttered by the angels in the Annunciation to the Shepherds.[147]

The three canticles Benedictus, Nuc Dimittis and the Magnificat, if not originating with Luke himself, may have their roots in the earliest Christian liturgical services in Jerusalem, but their exact origins remain unknown.[148]

Visual arts[edit]

Annunciation by Nesterov, 19th century, Russia.

The earliest artistic depictions of Nativity of Jesus were in the catacombs and on sarcophagi in Rome. As Gentile visitors, the Magi were popular in these scenes, representing the significance of the arrival of the Messiah to all peoples. The ox and ass were also taken to symbolize the Jews and the Gentiles, and have remained a constant since the earliest depictions. Mary was soon seated on a throne as the Magi visited.[149]

Depictions of the Nativity soon became a normal component of cycles in art illustrating both the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin. Nativity images also carry the message of redemption: God's unification with matter forms the mystery of the Incarnation, a turning point in the Christian perspective on Salvation.[150]

In the Eastern Church icons of Nativity often correspond to specific hymns to Mary, e.g. to the Kontakion: "The Virgin today bringeth forth the Transubstantial, and the eart offereth a cave to the Unapproachable...."[151] In many Eastern icons of Nativity (often accompanied by matching hymnody) two basic elements are emphasized. First the event portrays the mystery of incarnation as a foundation for the Christian faith, and the combined nature of Christ as Divine and human. Secondly, it relates the event to the natural life of the world, and its consequences for humanity.[151]

Hymns, music and performances[edit]

A Christmas carol card, Boston, 1880.
The Nativity depicted in an English liturgical manuscript, c.1310-1320

Like 1st century Jews, early Christians rejected the use of musical instruments in religious ceremonies and instead relied on chants and plainsong leading to the use of the term a cappella (in the chapel) for these chants.

One of the earliest Nativity hymns was Veni redemptor gentium composed by Saint Ambrose in Milan in the 4th century. By the beginning of the 5th century, the Spanish poet Prudentius had written "From the Heart of the Father" where the ninth stanza focused on the Nativity and portrayed Jesus as the creator of the universe. In the 5th century the Gallic poet Sedulius composed "From the lands that see the Sun arise" in which the humility of the birth of Jesus was portrayed.[149] The Magnificat, one of the 8 most ancient Christian hymns and perhaps the earliest Marian hymn is based on the Annunciation.[145][146]

Saint Romanus the Melodist had a dream of the Virgin Mary the night before the feast of the Nativity, and when he woke up the next morning, composed his first hymn "On the Nativity" and continued composing hymns (perhaps several hundred) to the end of his life.[152] Re-enactments of Nativity which are now called Nativity plays were part of the troparion hymns in the liturgy of Byzantine Rite Churches, from St. Sophronius in the 7th century.[153] By the 13th century, the Franciscans had encouraged a strong tradition of popular Christmas songs in the native languages.[154] Christmas carols in English first appear in a 1426 work of John Awdlay, a Shropshire chaplain, who lists twenty-five "caroles of Cristemas".[155]

The largest body of musical works about Christ in which he does not speak are about the Nativity. A large body of liturgical music, as well as a great deal of para-liturgical texts, Carols and folk music exist about the Nativity of Jesus. The Christmas Carols have come to be viewed as a cultural-signature of the Nativity of Jesus.[156]

Most musical Nativity narrations are not biblical and did not come about until church music assimilated opera in the 17th century. But thereafter there was a torrent of new music, e.g. Heinrich Schutz's 1660 The Christmas Story and Bach's Christmas Oratorio in the 18th century. And Lisz's Christus, etc.[156] John Milton's classic 1629 poem Ode on the Morning of Christ's Nativity was used by John McEwan in 1901.[156]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Robinson 2009, p. 111.
  2. ^ a b The image of St Francis by Rosalind B. Brooke 2006 ISBN 0-521-78291-0 pp. 183–184
  3. ^ a b The tradition of Catholic prayer by Christian Raab, Harry Hagan, St. Meinrad Archabbey 2007 ISBN 0-8146-3184-3 pp. 86–87
  4. ^ a b c d The vitality of the Christian tradition by George Finger Thomas 1944 ISBN 0-8369-2378-2 pp. 110–112
  5. ^
  6. ^ a b Vermes, Géza (2006-11-02). The Nativity: History and Legend. Penguin Books Ltd. p. 64. ISBN 0-14-102446-1. 
  7. ^ a b c d e Sanders, E. P. The historical figure of Jesus. Penguin, 1993. Sanders discusses both birth narratives in detail, contrasts them, and judges them not historical on pp. 85–88.
  8. ^ Marcus Borg, 'The Meaning of the Birth Stories' in Marcus Borg, N T Wright, The Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (Harper One, 1999) page 179: "I (and most mainline scholars) do not see these stories as historically factual."
  9. ^ Interpreting Gospel Narratives: Scenes, People, and Theology by Timothy Wiarda 2010 ISBN 0-8054-4843-8 pp. 75–78
  10. ^ Jesus, the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives by Brennan R. Hill 2004 ISBN 1-58595-303-2 p. 89
  11. ^ The Gospel of Luke by Timothy Johnson 1992 ISBN 0-8146-5805-9 p. 72
  12. ^ Recovering Jesus: the witness of the New Testament Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld 2007 ISBN 1-58743-202-1 p. 111
  13. ^ Matthew by Thomas G. Long 1997 ISBN 0-664-25257-5 pp. 14–15
  14. ^ Encyclopedia of theology: a concise Sacramentum mundi by Karl Rahner 2004 ISBN 0-86012-006-6 p. 731
  15. ^ a b Jeremy Corley New Perspectives on the Nativity Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009 p. 22.
  16. ^ a b c d The New Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible: Volume 3 Abingdon Press, 2008. pp. 42, 269–70.
  17. ^ Bruce M. Metzger, Michael D. Coogan, The Oxford Guide to People & Places of the Bible. Oxford University Press US, 2004. p. 137
  18. ^ Mark D. Roberts Can We Trust the Gospels?: Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John Good News Publishers, 2007 p. 102
  19. ^ The Origins of the Gospel According to St. Matthew by George Dunbar Kilpatrick 2007 ISBN 0-86516-667-6 p. 54
  20. ^ The Gospel according to Luke by Michael Patella 2005 ISBN 0-8146-2862-1 pp. 9–10
  21. ^ Lord Jesus Christ by Larry W. Hurtado 2005 ISBN 0-8028-3167-2 p. 322
  22. ^ A Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels: Volume II by James Hastings 2004 ISBN 1-4102-1788-4 p. 805
  23. ^ Recovering Jesus: the witness of the New Testament Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld 2007 ISBN 1-58743-202-1 pp. 116–123
  24. ^ Daniel J. Harrington 1991 The Gospel of Matthew ISBN 0-8146-5803-2 pp. 45–49
  25. ^ The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia by Geoffrey W. Bromiley 1988 ISBN 0-8028-3785-9 p. 685
  26. ^ John Bernard Orchard, 1983 Synopsis of the Four GospelsISBN 0-567-09331-X pp. 4–12
  27. ^ The horizontal line synopsis of the Gospels by Reuben J. Swanson 1984 ISBN 0-87808-744-3 page xix
  28. ^ Gospel Parallels by Burton H. Throckmorton 1992 ISBN 0-8407-7484-2 pp. 2–7
  29. ^ Steven L. Cox, Kendell H. Easley, 2007 Harmony of the Gospels ISBN 0-8054-9444-8 pp. 289–290
  30. ^ Brown, Raymond Edward (1999-05-18). The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library). Yale University Press. p. 36. ISBN 0-300-14008-8. 
  31. ^ Crossan, John Dominic; Watts, Richard J. (October 1999). Who Is Jesus?: Answers to Your Questions About the Historical Jesus. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 11–12. ISBN 0-664-25842-5. 
  32. ^ Funk, Robert W. and the Jesus Seminar. The acts of Jesus: the search for the authentic deeds of Jesus. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. "Birth & Infancy Stories" pp. 497–526.
  33. ^ Wright, Tom (March 2004). Luke for Everyone. London: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 39. ISBN 0-664-22784-8. 
  34. ^ Vermes, Géza (2006-11-02). The Nativity: History and Legend. Penguin Books Ltd. p. 22. ISBN 0-14-102446-1. 
  35. ^ Sanders, Ed Parish (1993). The Historical Figure of Jesus. London: Allen Lane. p. 85. ISBN 0-7139-9059-7. 
  36. ^ Hurtado, Larry W. (June 2003). Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans. pp. 319–320. ISBN 0-8028-6070-2. 
  37. ^ The birth of the Messiah by Raymond Brown 1993 ISBN 0-385-47202-1 p. 513
  38. ^ Oshri, Aviram (November–December 2005). "Where was Jesus Born?". Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America. 58 (6). Retrieved 24 November 2012. 
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External links[edit]

Nativity of Jesus
Preceded by
Mary visits Elizabeth
New Testament
Succeeded by
Annunciation to the Shepherds